A few years ago, I was talking with a friend about some of the more fanatical fans of cult TV shows and the ways that they (okay, we) interact with their (okay, our) chosen media. We had noticed a certain attitude among some fans, of some shows, who didn’t particularly seem to care whether the show was any good or not — if the plots made sense or if they worked at all; if the show told a story — but only about what was happening to a particular favorite character. Or, more often, a pair of characters. As long as the beloved character(s) looked heroic, or hot, or had the right kind of sexual or quasi-sexual tension with the right person, nothing else really seemed to matter.
And if anything bad happened to the character or couple in question, the show itself was bad; the fans were angry. On some level, this seems like an understandable reaction. On the other hand, the shows in question were usually dramas. If, while watching a drama, viewers insist that nothing bad or upsetting can ever happen to a favorite character — and if every character is somebody’s favorite — what in the world are the people creating the show supposed to do?
(I’m pretty sure, at the time, that my friend and I were particularly perplexed by fans of the Apollo/Starbuck pair-up on the new version of Battlestar Galactica. But you could insert many fanbases for many shows and get the same effect. I was a Buffy/Spike fan, I don’t really have room to talk about anybody).
This conversation led to the creation of a grand plan to make a show that would never upset anybody. We called it Big Sexy Hospital. Nominally, as the title suggests, Big Sexy Hospital would be a medical drama. However, actual medicine-related plots would get as little screentime as possible. Instead, the focus of the show would be fan-favorite actors from previous shows. (We went between Paul Gross of Due South and Nathan Fillion of Firefly as our star). The actors would play thinly-disguised riffs on the characters that had made them nerd-famous, and every week, the patient/guest star/love interest would be somebody that the series regulars had interacted and had real or imagined sexual tension with (whether it’s real or imagined always depends on which fan you ask) on their previous nerd-famous show. The stories would never make any sense, but no one would care.
That’s the best explanation I can come up with for why I’m still watching Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Up until the premiere last winter, my friend and I were watching the casting information fill in with alumni of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Eliza Dushku), Angel: the Series (Amy Acker), Battlestar Galactica (Tahmoh Penikett), Homicide: Life on the Street (Reed Diamond), and the X-Men movie franchise/the movies of Wes Anderson (Olivia Williams). Since then, more and more cult-TV alums have showed up in guest and recurring spots: Jamie Bamber from BSG, Alexis Denisof from Buffy/Angel, and Alan Tudyk and Summer Glau of Firefly. “My God,” my friend and I say every time another casting is announced. “This is totally the show we made up!”
I’m not suggesting that Dollhouse ever aspired to be Big Sexy Hospital. The show has some kind of a mytharc lurking behind its bizarre premise (briefly: fringe-y neuroscience being used to program invariably pretty people into real-life dolls that the rich and powerful can buy and use for their own ends). It also desperately seems to want to say something about female agency and the male gaze in modern popular culture. Talking to friends in the pop-culture realms of academia, it’s like the show was invented for feminist film theory. (Big Sexy Media Studies Seminar?) Still, the premise hasn’t ever really come together in a satisfactory way and, while having a textual artifact to sharpen analytical claws on is all good and well, it’s nice if there’s actually a functional story to hang it on. In my mind, at least, Dollhouse has never really gotten there.
Still, I keep watching the damn thing (it’s officially been cancelled, but FOX is still airing the second season on Friday nights, and apparenty the episodes filmed so far take it to some kind of ending point.) If for no other reason, I watch for scenes like the one we got last week, where Alexis Denisof and Eliza Dushku got half-naked and played with knives. There was a (nominal) plot-reason for them to do this, but none that I could detect for the scene to be so sexually charged — until you factor in that Denisof played Wesley, and Dushku played Faith, on Buffy and later on Angel. Those two characters had a complex, occasionally violent, and oddly sexually charged dynamic on their previous shows and viewers are supposed to thrill from seeing the actors revisit those interactions. (Okay, I don’t know if we’re supposed to, but I totally did, and I know enough other Faith/Wesley fans to determine I’m not the only one.) It’s got nothing to do with the people they’re ostensibly playing on Dollhouse, though. That’s the most blatant (but hardly the only) example of the show trading on things that it assumes its audience (or significant portions) is aware of.
I hope it’s obvious from what I’ve said above that I’m a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s shows. I loved Buffy, and Angel and Firefly, and I’ve got a residual affection for all of these actors because of seeing them in other things. I’m just not sure what show I’m supposed to be watching when I’m watching Dollhouse — unless it’s Big Sexy Hospital.
Whatever Joss Whedon does after Dollhouse, I’ll definitely be there to watch. I just hope, next time around, he’ll get back to telling stories.